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Basalt schools seek to ease transition jitters
Plenty of orientation activities for students and families
BMS Ice Cream Social 2.jpg
Basalt Middle School welcomes incoming fifth-grade families with popsicles each spring at the annual Ice Cream Social in the fifth-grade pod. The event offers a chance to meet new teachers, and the opportunity to learn how a combination locker lock works.

Just as graduation is a time-honored ritual capable of bringing tears to the eye of even the most stalwart parent, the transition from one school to the next can be equally emotional. Leaving behind the familiar place where families have known the routines, the teachers, the principal and even the front office staff for years can be disconcerting. Both parents and students must take the time to learn new school staff, customs and protocols.

The shift from elementary to middle school can feel akin to the end of childhood. Adolescence and puberty loom on the near horizon. In middle school, voices will drop, bodies will grow to loom over teachers, hormones will rage and the brain will develop more rapidly than it has since the preschool years.

Likewise, the move to high school also plays on parent anxieties thanks to a popular culture that suggest the teen years are all about risky behavior, dating and experimenting with illegal substances. Academics also take a hard turn. From freshman year on, grades matter in ways they haven't before. School and life begin to orient toward adulthood and the years beyond high school.

It’s enough to make any middle school parent or student a little anxious.

The good news is that parents and students do not have to face these transitions and the unknown alone. The Basalt schools have not only worked hard to transition both students and parents to the next school level but also built in peer support systems to ensure students adjust well to their new home.

“Transitions can be scary for students and parents alike,” said BMS Principal Jennifer Ellsperman. “Having the opportunity to get a feel for the building, ask questions and experience some kind and enthusiastic upperclassmen before school starts really settles their minds. It is also valuable for the older students to give back since they remember what it felt like to be new. Leadership opportunities are an important part of the school experience as well.”

At BES, kindergarten information nights and registration happen every spring throughout the district. In the fall, Basalt Elementary School offers two parent orientation sessions as well (August 19 or 20 at 9:30 a.m.).

Fifth grade is often still considered an elementary grade nationwide, and so Basalt Middle School works hard to make its youngest students feel safe and at home. Fifth-grade students spend most of their day in “the pod,” a series of classrooms that branch off a central meeting space that is separate from the rest of the school.

Each spring, BMS invites fourth-grade students over for tours and an introduction to their new home. At the end of the week of student tours, families are invited back to the fifth-grade pod for an Ice Cream Social and a first chance to meet their new teachers and principals.

In August before school starts, incoming fifth-grade families are welcomed back to school for a family orientation night (August 15 at 5:30 p.m.) for a more formal introduction and presentation by teachers. The next day, on August 16, students have their own half-day WEB orientation.

In its second year, the We All Belong orientation is a special morning of hands-on activities, tours and bonding run primarily by select eighth-grade mentors, who will continue to connect with their younger peers during the school year. Having the program run by eighth graders provides a student perspective that helps fifth graders adjust as well. The WEB orientation also introduces students to the school’s climate and culture, including its school motto, social vision, and emphasis on kindness. Building a cohesive school culture between grades continues throughout the year in mixed grade-level Crew activities. The results of the new program have been promising.

“This year we saw a growth in student knowledge and practice of empathy and compassion,” said BMS School Counselor Marlon Funez. ”More than 90 percent of fifth graders believe that it is important to have empathy for their classmates and learn how to understand others’ perspective.”

Basalt High School begins to transition new students as early as the fall of their eighth-grade year with an 8th Grade Information Night. Principal Peter Mueller and his admin team talk about the climate and culture of BHS, touching on topics ranging from academics and course selection to extracurricular opportunities and sports. They also welcome questions from families.

In February, eighth-grade families are invited to BHS for an Incoming Freshman Open House, which includes tours of the school, a panel discussion with current students, and the opportunity to pick up a course catalogue and meet student representatives from the school’s clubs and sports.

Traversing the educational path

Throughout the spring, Basalt High School continues to cross Highway 82 to reach out to eighth-grade students. In early March, students sign up for courses. They also hear presentations from high school student council members who encourage them to apply to join the group and even bring the new members over in the spring to begin planning for the following year.

In May, eighth graders learn their new Crew advisory class groupings and meet their student mentors. On the last day of eighth grade, students complete the transition physically as well as mentally with the Kate Keenan Memorial Mile Run (June 3, 2 p.m.), a time-honored tradition of running from Basalt Middle School to Basalt High School, where they are welcomed by students, staff, parents and popsicles.

On August 15-16, incoming freshmen return to Basalt High School early for Freshman Orientation, a two-day event that starts with a half-day orientation at the school. Students confirm their class schedules, find their lockers and meet in groups before heading off on an overnight trip to a 10th Mountain Division Hut with junior or senior student mentors and staff.

Perhaps the ultimate transition activity happens right before high school graduation when BHS seniors return to parade through the elementary and middle schools in their caps and gowns. Their walk, a new tradition in the past few years, serves as an inspiration to young students and the chance to reconnect with their old teachers.    

Along the educational path, if families have any lingering concerns or questions about the transition process, all three schools open to the public about a week before the start of school and all three offer Back to School Nights in the fall as well (BES Sept. 12, BMS Sept. 10, BHS check their online school calendar in August). While the end result of these traditions and activities helps ease the transition for students and parents, it’s good for the schools as well.

“Students need to know that schools are a safe place, and a warm welcome to their new schools is a starting point,” said BMS’ Funez. “Students and parents will be more likely to engage in schools when they feel safe and that it’s an exciting place to learn.”